Rating: 5 stars
On July 23rd Taylor Swift unexpectedly announced the release of her 8th album, Folklore. Within the first 24 hours of its release, the album sales exceeded 1.3 million with 80.6 million streams on Spotify. Critics and fans alike are already declaring Folklore as Swift’s most skilful and pensive work in her discography.
The 16-track album feels like an authentic portrayal of Swift’s musical journey, rooted in a soundtrack dominated by acoustic guitars, harmonicas and pianos reminiscent of her earliest works; the songs are a true expression of the music Swift desires to create. Described as indie/goth-folk and alternative rock, the LP presents an advanced post-pop version of Swift whilst retaining a sense of familiarity and nostalgia that you experience whilst listening to Fearless. Created during quarantine in her Los Angeles home, the songs weren’t written to accommodate stadiums and elaborate performances. Instead the album offers intimate tales of people’s lives; images of battleships, scars circled by stars and an abandoned cardigan under a bed. As Swift shared on Instagram, these images wrote their own stories “like a stream of consciousness” that allowed her to escape into a fantasy world filled with the adventures of “people she’s never met, people [she’s] known, or those [she] wishes [she] hadn’t”.
The album opens with my personal favourite- ‘the 1’, a wistful retelling of a past relationship and lost love, set to a hopeful and light-hearted melody. The ideal surroundings to listen to this track would be a field full of flowers, one that you can skip and twirl in- although the whole album should be experienced in any outdoor setting. The opening lines make it clear that Folklore will be unlike any other album as Swift sings “I’m doing good, I’m on some new shit/been saying yes instead of no”. This maturity and self-growth acts as a direct response to previous critiques labelling Swift as a songwriter obsessed with her ex. The rest of the album continues to prove these opinions wrong as she sings about a recovering alcoholic (‘this is me trying’), her grandfather during WWII (‘epiphany’) and the eccentric heiress Rebekah Harkness (‘the last great american dynasty’). In fact, the theme of erratic women is one that Swift has turned to many times in her music after being repeatedly vilified by the media throughout her career.
Track 12, ‘mad woman’, criticizes society for the way in which it judges strong, opinionated women and blames pop culture for creating bitter and “mad” women. The powerful beat of the chorus conjures up images of witches around a fire at night, Macbeth-esque, no doubt cursing the men that deemed them mad as they dance barefoot on the earth. In the album prologue, Swift describes the track as a “misfit widow getting gleeful revenge on the town that cast her out”, similarly to how Swift went off the grid in 2017 after her public feud with Scooter Braun and the Wests, as suggested by the lyrics “it’s obvious that wanting me dead has really brought you two together”. These small snippets of Swift’s own life incorporate the same confidence and assertiveness that featured heavily in her 2017 album Reputation. However, Folklore’s treatment of these themes is done in a much more meditative and pensive manner.
This is felt in the deep and resounding notes of ‘exile’ which carries the heartbreak of two ex-lovers as they reflect on the shortcomings of their relationship. The contrast between Swift and Bon Iver’s voices mirrors the discord between the two, layering on top of each other as if in a heated argument as it builds towards the bridge. The post chorus chords that play throughout resonate with those in Swift’s ‘Safe and Sound’, recreating a sense of abandonment that goes hand in hand with heartbreak. ‘exile’ is the messy- break up anthem of Folklore.
A more mischievous ballad, ‘august’, recounts one perspective of a teenage love triangle- completed by ‘cardigan’ and ‘betty’. In classic Swiftian style, as the 8th month in the year the track is listed 8th on the album before transitioning to more wintery songs such as ‘illicit affaires’, ‘epiphany’ and ‘hoax’ which conjures up images of a stormy cliffside. ‘cardigan’ has been described by Pitchfork as a “sensuous sound reminiscent of Lana Del Rey” which addresses the ruined innocence of teenage love similar to that of Swift’s 2008 ‘Forever and Always’. ‘betty’, told from the perspective of James, completes the tragic love story. Online fans have speculated about queer-coding throughout the track and the rest of the album, inquiring after lyrics such as “I won’t make assumptions” which bring into question ‘James’’ sexuality. Swift’s choice of names has also been debated, as she herself is said to be named after James Taylor, with Elizabeth (aka Betty) as the middle name of her rumoured more-than-friend Karlie Kloss. Furthermore, some are speculating that the 16 tracks on Folklore make up one full narrative, creating in effect “an entire feature length film”. Even if this is not the case, I shall henceforth be starting a petition for a Taylor Swift musical.
As the second album free from her 13-year contract with BMLG Records, Folklore embodies Swift’s newfound freedom and marks “the most magical creative adventure of [her] life thus far”. An introspective look at people’s most intimate emotions and collective experiences, Swift has written the kind of songs you blast out as you’re driving with the windows down, the ones you dance in your room alone to and the ones you listen to at sleepovers with your best friend. It’s safe to say that Folklore marks Taylor Swift’s new reign.